During the ‘Punitive Expedition’ and great fire of 1897, Benin City was looted and destroyed. Few houses survived and several thousand cherished bronzes were carried away by the British.
Sadly, years after the looting, valuable antiquities were still being sold to dealers all over the world.
The few that still remain can give you an idea of the splendor that was old Benin.
The fame of Benin rests largely on its traditional culture and one of the most popular aspects of this culture is Benin carvings and brass work.
Today, there has been a decline in the numbers of traditional artists in this discipline but of those that remain, some of them still keep to tradition and an association of brass workers and wood carvers still exists, though members are few.
It is believed that the decline in traditional carvers started in the early part of last century, the constant stream and demand by foreign visitors influenced the diversion from unique pieces to more commercial works to satisfy the tourist market.
Many talented artists found their way out of the tradition all together and embraced and formally learned western techniques like Colette Omogbai and Bruce Onobrakpeya.
An exception to this influence was O. Idah.
Idah was born in 1908. At the age of seven he was sent to live in the palace with late Oba Eweka II. There,he trained in traditional styles of wood carving. He first started with coconuts shells, palm kernels, calabashes then later carving, coral beads, wood and ivory.
Unlike many of his contemporaries Idah did not succumb to the routine of copying famous pieces for the tourist market. He was known for originality and a strong imaginative mind. This made him one of the most attractive artists of his time, both home and abroad.
At thirteen, one of his wooden panels won first prize at an exhibition in Benin and at fifteen Oba Eweka II allowed him to go to Lagos to learn carpentry. He had his training in the Public Works Department but he always found time for his art.
Idah, first started with ebony carving in Lagos in the 1920s, a medium which was not popular at the time. He was invited to teach at Kings College school. Where he was engaged to teach wood carving. During his nine years at the college, he taught many boys that went on to become well known artists, public figures and statesmen, including Dr M.I Okpara the first Premier of Eastern Nigeria.
After spending twenty four years in Lagos, Idah fell ill and returned to Benin in 1947. After his recovery, Oba Akenzua II persuaded him to stay in his native city to teach art. First he taught in the Divisional Council Secondary Modern School. Later, he was put in charge of the Councils Arts and Crafts School.
It seems that the years since 1947 was his most productive. His return to Benin inspired many pieces. He had recovered and was happy to be home, he even started experimenting with new media. He developed a form of cement sculpture, which had all the power and virility of traditional mud sculpture but more resistant to the elements. One of these pieces was the statue of Oba Ozolua (1480–1504) which is on the grounds of the Obas palace.
Idah is also responsible for replacing the original ancient reliefs that were part of the palace during the reign of Eweka II with six beautiful cement reliefs. Other examples of his work can be seen at the home of Chief Iyamu, for whom he moulded two elephants.
As a wood carver Idah carved many objects including the doors of the Benin Divisional Council and many figures within the Obas Palace.
Another monument to Idah’s ingenuity was the Aruosa Cathedral in Benin. This was a church which Oba Akenzua II undertook to build himself. It was designed by Idah, who cast specially decorated cement bricks for the building.
Idah was one of the first to “liven up the surface and texture” of cement blocks.
Another fascinating monument Idah created was his own home ( as seen in the picture ) this captured the owner perfectly, as it was a reflection of his personality and heritage.
The house was built on one of the remaining sections of the ancient city walls.